Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Once again, I've failed at the TBR Challenge. (Sorry, Wendy.) Mostly that's because I'm not reading as much. I started Heat by R. Lee Smith, which had been recommended by Dear Author, but it's a long book, and I don't seem to have the time to devote to reading that I used to, so I haven't come close to finishing it.

But the challenge itself, to read a book in my TBR that was recommended, nearly stymied me. First, I don't make a note of why I've bought a book when I order it. By the time I next look at the book--in molecules or electrons--I have no idea why I own it. In some sense, they've all been recommended by someone, whether it's a friend or a book review.

I did have an obvious choice, though. Shadow Kin by M.J. Scott. A friend strongly recommended this to me, and I started it, got a quarter of the way through and stopped. Not "DNF" stopped, but "good book" stopped. This loops back to the point about not having Heat finished in time for this post -- good books take longer to read. Often because they are longer, but sometimes it's just that quality takes longer to enjoy, absorb, contemplate, assimilate. A bad book, well, a readable-but-still-bad book, can whiz by. Other good books I haven't gotten around to finishing? The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne, Spoiled by the Fuggirls, and The Affair by Lee Child.

No big surprise, but despite reading less I'm still making time for the Interwebs. I loved this gargantuan essay by Maria Bustillos in The Awl in support of romance novels as "the last great bastion of underground writing." I didn't pick it apart bit by bit, but I liked the author's tone and enthusiasm. So I was surprised when people on Twitter complained about Bustillos's claim that "Romance novels are feminist documents." Of course it depends on what you consider a feminist document. Is it one that was crafted in a free and fair environment of equal rights for women? Or is it one that espouses and reflects the feminist doctrine? (Assuming there's a single feminist doctrine that all feminists can agree on -- a big assumption.)

I think the former claim is rather obviously true. Here's a billion-dollar industry where millions of women (and some men) buy books written by women (and some men) and edited by women (and some men) and reviewed by women (and no men that I know of). Okay, so the CEO of Torstar (the corporation that includes Harlequin Enterprises) may not be a woman, but would it matter? He's hardly going to tell the editors and authors at Harlequin to publish anything other than what sells. We know what sells and we know who's buying it. Can anyone with a straight face argue that romance novels are not the product of a completely gynocratic business?

That's the problem, isn't it? If women write what they want to write, edit what they want to edit, and buy what they want to buy (because no one can argue there are too few books in the marketplace for choice), then those books are what women want them to be. And if the resulting books have retrogressive titles like "The Billionaire Sexist Sheik's Patronized Personal Assistant," guess what: women want that. I have a hard time believing that after more than 50 years of Harlequin Romances, the market can be seen as inherently corrupted by The Patriarchy simply because women like to write, and want to read, books that don't espouse a feminist agenda.

Women are sexist. Yup, I said it. Smart women are sexist. In 35 years, the worst sexism I encountered and witnessed was inflicted by women attorneys on other women attorneys. The second worst sexism was by a high-ranking public health official (a woman) against a staffer. I've been taken out to lunch by professional women who assured me they believe in supporting women in the profession, and then turned around and reflexively discriminated against me and other women while favoring men.

I have a theory why this happened, but suffice it to say, I don't think women are completely on board with the feminist agenda. They may know it's the right way to go, and they may say it's the right way to go, but then some guy comes along... Or, in the specific case of romance novels, some hot hero comes along...

So, like it or not, romance novels are feminist documents. Every last one of them. And if their plots and characters are too sexist for your scruples, write better ones. It's one of the great rules: Write what you want to read. That's the beauty of the current publishing situation; self-publishing means you can write what you want and put it out in the marketplace. If what you write isn't what the majority of the book buyers wants to read, you just won't sell as many copies.

If feminism is about equal rights for women, then accept romance fiction as the gynocratic industry it is. Perhaps in a feminist utopia, romance readers will want to read only books that present women as fully-evolved, self-determining paragons of confidence and sexual freedom. But in today's society, fully-evolved women are writing about hot heroes and paragons of confidence and sexual freedom are spending their own money to read about billionaire sexist sheiks (or bossy Dutch doctors). And we're enjoying it.

You can't say you support women's right to choose and then insist that what women freely choose to write and read isn't feminist. It's not like a man is forcing us to read this stuff.


  1. This is the problem with Twitter; it's so easy for an off-hand 140-character remark to be misread. I don't want to start WWIII over feminism, and I liked the piece in the Awl a lot. But since it was me who tweeted "Just because something is written by, for and about women does not make it a feminist document, FFS" I feel I should clarify what I did and did not mean by that, as you seem to have been reading me in some ways I did NOT mean.

    I see a lot of casual comments in Romancelandia that talk about feminism as if anything women do/choose/want is by definition feminist. You kind of say that yourself at the end of this post. And I do take issue with that definition, because it renders feminism essentially content-free, and it is NOT. Something can be by, for and about women and not be feminist. As you say yourself, women can act in ways opposed to feminism. If a woman goes on Fox news and says that women in combat roles should expect to be raped more? Not feminist. (Not pro-man, either). So yes, I CAN say that women "freely" choose (although many of our choices are NOT free, and are constrained by elements of our culture that are NOT feminist) in ways that are not feminist. (And by that I do not mean things like choosing to stay home with your kids). The fact that women choose to read romance, and that women choose to write it, and that many of the people who publish it are women, does not make it necessarily or *by definition* feminist. That's all I meant.

    I did NOT mean that I think Romance is therefore anti-feminist. There is a lot that is feminist in individual books, in the genre as a whole, and in the industry. And a lot that is not. I was partly objecting to any sweeping statement about such a big genre, which is bound to be inaccurate.

    NOR did I mean that women should only read books that accord with my or anyone else's feminist "doctrine." I read romance, and in my work life I am a Victorianist. I love many, many books that are not feminist by any definition, and I have no problem with that. I am not arguing for some kind of feminist version of socialist realism, where everything we read must be doctrinally correct and aimed at indoctinating us. Ugh! To say that romance is not by definition feminist, and to read and even sometimes criticize aspects of it through a feminist lens, does not have to be the same as reader shaming or as saying that people are making "bad" choices and "should" read other things. I don't want to do that, and certainly did not mean to suggest otherwise.

  2. Liz -- If you want to start a website "Good Feminist Reads" and rate every novel you read (the 19th century ones, the 20th century ones, and current ones) from 1 to 5 stars on the basis of how "feminist" the text is, I'd be thrilled. That would be a fun website to visit, that's for sure.

    But I can't see how you can explain away 8,000 romance novels published in 2011, primarily written by women, edited by women, and purchased by women, as anything other than feminist documents. The individual texts may not say the things you think a proper feminist novel should say, but that's not the point I was making.

    As I understand it, feminism is "advocacy of women's rights, or of the movement for the advancement and emancipation of women." Well, a ten billion dollar industry that is almost exclusively controlled by women is pretty well emancipated from The Patriarchy.

    So a gynocratic industry is churning out non-feminist doctrine. Each of us has to resolve that cognitive dissonance in our own way.

    Me? I figure the market has worked much as markets do: the majority of consumers are getting most of what they want most of the time. This isn't an instance of a single shrill comment on Fox News about rape in the military. This is millions of women buying what thousands of women are writing.

    Those women don't represent me, but they do represent themselves, and there are many more of them than of people who might think as I do. Nonetheless, I don't think it's sexist to read, write, or enjoy books about Billionaire Sexist Sheiks, even if the story falls way short of a feminist ideal.

    I cannot understand why any woman wouldn't celebrate as a feminist victory the fact that there is a ten billion dollar gynocratic industry, regardless of what that industry was pumping out.

  3. This is exactly why I started reading Romance. As a culture, almost everything we see and hear in our mainstream culture is masculine-- writers, directors, politicians, business leaders. They make up the "noise" that we hear on tv, in movies, in newspapers. Just look at the reaction to the movie Bridesmaids. Women can be funny?!?! Who knew?

    And then I stumbled into Romancelandia. Me, a women's studies major with a minor in snobbish condescension and five years working in an appropriately snobbish independent bookstore, where we would have snickered if anyone suggested that we sell romance novels. Ah, the hubris of youth.

    But in romance I found a little corner of the culture that was completely female-focused. Where the concerns that I had as a woman weren't dismissed as trivial (with whom I chose to share my life and/or my body, for example.) And here was a place where the "female voice" as a generality was given power and centrality. Blew my mind. And got me through the roughest time of my life.

    And even though most of these books are more "mainstream" in their attitudes toward (hetero)sexuality than me, I still believe that romance novels offers something that isn't available to women anywhere else, both as readers and writers.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Ms. Sarah -- Thanks. I hadn't thought about how the female voice is a large part of romance novels' appeal, but I think you must be right.

      It's interesting to me, also, that romance fiction is (deliberately or coincidentally) more anonymous than other genres. There are famous authors, to be sure, but even Nora Roberts started as one of a stable of authors writing for Silhouette. I can think of women writing mysteries, thrillers, and science fiction -- but they're all specific women.

      A good friend (a woman and, as it happens, an accountant) once told me, "I LOVE romance novels." "Hey, that's great. Who's your favorite author?" I asked. "I don't know."

      She didn't know because she didn't care, but her love for romances was sincere.

      There's a lot to celebrate in this industry, that's for sure.


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